Sue Miller, The World Below

The World Below


Fish swim through bedroom windows and glide over rooftops in a drowned town, sacrificed to a dam decades back. Sixteen-year-old Cath can spy the lost city fluttering beneath the lake on which she and her grandfather fish and float. The image sticks. ”Grand, somehow. Grand because it was gone forever but still visible, still imaginable, below us…. It was like being able to look at memory itself.”

A generous and clear-eyed chronicler of women’s lives, Sue Miller — best known for her harrowing child-custody tale ”The Good Mother” — has long dealt in memory and misimaginings, the undertow of marriage and family. If her work were assigned a theme, it could be this: Past is prologue.

In The World Below, the past is practically prescient. It propels Cath. Now a 52-year-old in retreat from her second divorce and a static life in San Francisco, Cath flees to the Vermont farmhouse in which her late grandparents raised her. In an attic trunk she discovers, among eyelet camisoles and ethereal petticoats, her grandmother Georgia’s diaries. A fever to puzzle out her ancestor’s story descends upon her: ”I was somehow coming to know her, to understand what her deeper thoughts were under the quotidian of the surface…. These slender books would somehow let me piece together too what lay under the later loving surface of my grandparents’ lives together.”

It is a mystery that Cath seeks to unspool: What happened in those months of 1919, after Dr. Holbrooke (who’d later be Cath’s grandfather) banished lively Georgia to a tuberculosis sanatorium? Talk of that tucked-away time — with its cryptic hints of scandal — had always triggered explosions of both mirth and bitterness in Georgia.

Flowing dreamily between Cath’s life and her grandmother’s youth, Miller tells the tales of two similar women living in very different eras. Vibrantly self-aware, grandmother and grandaughter make captivating bookends. Georgia, a bright girl who has pointedly avoided folly, grows audacious among the dying. The prose, too, positively sparks in these sections about sanatorium life — the cold ”cure” porches, the blood-splotched linens, the desperate liaisons. Seward, the tempestuous, expiring boy that Georgia comes to love, ”the first angry person [she’d] ever met,” is a particular triumph for Miller, whose male characters are more often either impassive patriarchs or genial, ”decent” types.

Meanwhile, Cath mulls her own approach to love, a listlessness that caused her recent divorce: Her husband had fallen in love with someone else, he told her. ”Later on I did feel what he’d called on me to feel that night — a kind of shame at my own contentment, at my willingness to settle for what he clearly thought of as so little…. Why wasn’t I hungrier, greedier? Why hadn’t I wanted more sex, more friends, more interesting talk?”

Miller nurtures her characters extravagantly. Even minor ones: Cath’s intellectually pompous first husband, her sweetly loopy daughter, and especially her new septuagenarian neighbor, Samuel, with whom Cath begins a charged friendship.

But the plot itself feels a tad neglected. Tantalizing echoes between Cath and Georgia are left inchoate, particularly the fact that each had a young mother who succumbed to illness. The most enticing link, the schizophrenic Dolly — Georgia’s daughter, Cath’s mother — is abandoned, sealed away from the story like ”Jane Eyre”’s lunatic in the attic. And speaking of echoes, those familiar with ”The Good Mother” will sense a reverb in several scenes: A crotchety senior righteously admonishes a divorcée; grandparents engage in a crisp but potent showdown.

Most damaging is this: Despite Miller’s ominous foreshadowing — of which there’s plenty — Cath ultimately has little at risk. Her well-being doesn’t depend on unearthing (or not unearthing) Georgia’s secret. Miller, whose finest stories involve high stakes — losing children, dealing with autism — is fairly stingerless here; the drama feels insubstantial. The result is a ”World Below” that, while intricate and endlessly lovely, isn’t as deep as it looks from the surface.

The World Below
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